Page last updated at 11:16 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

How sea piracy is hurting India

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Indian warship off the Somali coast (file photo)
The Indian navy is patrolling off the Somali coast
About a week ago, an Indian cargo ship sailing in the Gulf of Aden spotted a pirate vessel operating off the coast of Somalia.

The captain of the ship sent out a SOS to the INS Tabar, a state-of-the-art Russian built Indian naval warship which has been patrolling waters in the region to combat the pirate menace.

The warship responded by sending out a helicopter to the area, which chased away the pirate vessel.

A similar incident happened on Wednesday, when an Indian navy warship destroyed a suspected Somali pirate vessel after it came under attack in the same area.

Shashank Kulkarni, secretary general of the Indian National Ship Owners Association (Insa) says that there is now no doubt that Indian-owned cargo ships are coming under increasing danger from pirates operating in the region.

There is also no doubt that the government is taking the menace of high sea piracy in the Gulf of Aden seriously.

So far, in the Indian public imagination, piracy has been synonymous with river pirates who have kidnapped and looted small fishing boats for paltry ransoms and goods in the Sundarbans region in eastern India for decades.

Spirited campaign

But the kidnapping of the Japanese-owned cargo ship MV Stolt Valor with 18 Indian crew members on 15 September off the Somali coast brought the country's attention to a bigger and more serious problem of piracy.

A spirited campaign was launched by Seema Goyal, wife of the ship's captain PK Goyal, who pressured the usually unresponsive government to secure the release of the crew members.

The fact that every detail of the whole drama was captured on 24/7 news television captivated the nation and no doubt played its part in making the government act.

Ms Goyal's relentless pressure appeared to have forced the government to deploy warships in the Gulf of Aden to prevent pirate attacks and secure her husband's ship.

A British vessel intercepting a pirate vessel
International forces often try to intercept pirate vessels

Over the weekend the crew members were released by the pirates - local media reports said a large ransom had been paid by the Japanese ship-owners, though the owners did not confirm this.

There have been rising concerns in the local shipping industry that Indian crew members - who comprise a sixth of the world's maritime crews - may now be reluctant to sail in the Gulf of Aden after the recent rises in piracy in that area.

In September, the crew of an Indian-owned cargo ship carrying aviation turbine fuel from Kuwait to London refused to sail because of security concerns.

Senior shipping officials tried to get the crew to change their mind, but they were not to be persuaded, pointing to the "war-like situation in the Gulf of Aden".

Finally, the crew agreed to sail after they were promised an "extra bonus" for the journey.

India has now, clearly, decided that it cannot take chances with its cargo ships travelling through the Gulf of Aden, which provide access to the Suez Canal.

Some 25 Indian-owned ships a month sail through the route, carrying millions of dollars worth of India's sea trade every year.

Larger interest

India has a larger interest in ensuring the protection of non-Indian owned cargo ships on the route - because 85% of India's sea trade on the route is carried by foreign-owned ships.


About a third of India's total fleet of 900 cargo ships deployed in international waters are at risk on the route.

That is possibly why the navy says that INS Tabar has safely escorted some 35 ships, including a number of foreign-owned ones, during transit through the Gulf of Aden.

The navy also claims that the warship "prevented two hijacking attempts" last week.

"India has had to move ahead and take measures. It has no other option. With such incidents, a career at sea is losing its charm for Indians. The crew are refusing to sail. So India had to join other nations to fight this menace," says Shashank Kulkarni.

So, Indian warships have joined ships from at least eight countries now operating in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.

The hijackings off the coast of East Africa and the Gulf of Aden - an area of more than 1m sq miles (2.6m sq km) - make up one-third of all global piracy incidents this year, according the International Maritime Board.

More than 90 ships have been hijacked off Somalia this year.

It is a battle which India's traders cannot afford to lose.

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